Around this time of the year, a date that coincides with a massive revolt that ended the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, Filipinos tend to try to take stock of their country. On Sunday Feb. 25, there were demonstrations on either side of the capital Manila – one that wanted to hold steadfast to the gains of freedom, and the other to stand by the drastic change President Rodrigo Duterte had promised – neither of them with the kind of fire that was going to produce any impetus for change.
Nonetheless, roughly eight months on since Duterte was elected president, the kind of democracy Filipinos had been familiar with since the Marcos ouster has gone topsy-turvy and indications are that the country might be in for a spate of uncertain political outcomes.
The old marchers combined with the verve of some millennials to stake out a corner of the Manila arterial known as EDSA to remember that 31 years ago a bloodless uprising booted out the strongman. They were there to remember that fight and that victory amid a new bid to preserve democratic ideals against an implacable foe.
Meanwhile those gathering at a park by the bay across town pledged to take the side of President Duterte, a strongman-in-the-making stretching the bounds of rational human conduct on his so-called crusade against crime. Many were civil servants loaded onto government buses.
Surveys indicate there is no doubt the president remains popular, fueled as the surveys are by a perception that crime is dramatically down. It is with this weapon that he has tried slaying the Catholic Church, which was key in the EDSA revolt of 1986 and whose influence until today remains rooted in this largely Roman Catholic nation.
It took the church some time to respond against the extrajudicial killings that have claimed about 7,000 lives in the president’s anti-drug war. The church’s protest against impunity on the part of law enforcement came rather late as the police suspended operations last month for ‘internal cleansing’ after police involvement was discovered in the murder of a South Korean businessman inside the headquarters at Camp Crame. The killing of Jee Ick Joo and the subsequent attempt by police officials to extort ransom from his widow after he was already dead was a deed that appears to have finally awakened Duterte that the police force he depends on to clean up crime is itself almost irretrievably corrupted itself.
The march on EDSA was a celebration even though the principal players of that people-power revolt had splintered over time and the highway itself had become paved with massive traffic jams and exemplified horrible infrastructure affecting millions of workers. On Sunday, the spirit turned to protest against the government.
They heyday speeches of the militants are back and activism may be in fashion again.
“In the old days, we were the militant brats, those of you here today are temperamental brats,” said Sylvia Claudio, a doctor and university professor who was with the leftist movement in the past, speaking on stage behind which were screen images of the martial law era of the 1970s and 80s.
‘If they say EDSA failed, who do they think they are? Filipinos will always fight for justice and democracy… We will have temperamental tantrums until we stop fascism and until we make sure democracy will return to this country.’
The week leading up to the Sunday protest reeled with bizarre events. Senator Leila de Lima, one of the country’s most respected human rights activists and the president’s chief critic in his anti-drug campaign, was arrested on dubious charges put together by the justice department, citing testimony from convicts who alleged that De Lima accepted bribes in the illegal drug trade. Human Rights Watch issued a report saying the convicts had been given privileges in prison including air conditioners, internet access, cellphones and other indulgences.
The arrest, which had the typical Filipino flourish for the dramatics, drowned out a shocking and damning confession of a former low-ranking police officer. Arturo Lascanas claimed he had been part of death squad headed by Duterte himself when he was mayor of the southern city of Davao for 20 years. Lascanas gave details on the killings of a family, a local radio announcer, and his two brothers out of his “blind loyalty and obedience” to Duterte. Lascanas’s testimony corroborated that of a confessed hit man named Edgar Matobato, who claimed last September before a committee chaired by Leila de Lima that Duterte had personally ordered members of the so-called Davao Death Squad to execute criminals, including drug suspects.
Giving credence to his confession, the former police was flanked by three prominent human rights lawyers who seemed to be back in their element, their reputation known since the days of street demonstrations that had led to the EDSA revolt.
One of them said Lascanas’s confession could lead to grounds for the president’s impeachment – but that would depend entirely on Congress deciding on such legal and constitutional issues. Certainly a report that a president ordered murders ought to lead to some legal action. But given Duterte’s popularity, those hopes are futile, at least for right now. The president is riding on a bubble that shows few signs of breaking. Rightly or wrongly, people think the streets are safer. But they thought that too more than 30 years ago when Marcos ordered his own death squads to clean the streets.
The pro-Duterte crowd that went to the park on Sunday, opposing the EDSA crowd, was said to be the impetus for a groundswell of a ‘Movement for Change’ steered for the president, who has brought to his cabinet former communists in the underground of the martial law years, driving a much deeper wedge among the multi-layered movement of the left.
This other movement is aimed at organizing the masses – an uncanny template of the past – that is designed to serve against crime and corruption, terrorism and foreign intervention, principles that, according to a document, are to guide the “governance strategy of the Duterte Administration,” whose brand, it says, is socialism.
The organizing must come from the village level headed by potential grassroots leaders, clearly the key to mass organizing. It emphasizes that “we avoid the involvement of any government officials such as mayors and governors in taking a lead role in the establishment of the movement because it contradicts to the primary role … which is to prevent corruption in the government.”
The communists had come close to taking control of the countryside in the last years of martial law, but they missed out on the political spoils of EDSA when they held back from joining an uprising that was spontaneously triggered by the military. Thirty years on they may be attempting such an ideological footprint under the arms of Duterte.
But the President’s many swerves in recent months have opened up fears and conspiracy theories for many Filipinos. The military has so far stayed out of the equation; the demonstrations on Sunday were not tipping points. It may just be safe for them in the meanwhile to continue to be watching from the barracks.